After the verdict against veteran labor activist Somyot Prueksakasemsuk, discussions about lèse majesté have been reignited on many levels and also in many forms. Somyot was recently sentenced to 11 years in prison, 10 of them for publishing articles (which he didn’t write himself) in a magazine that were deemed insulting to the monarchy – after being previously held in detention for 21 months and denied bail 12 times (read our report as it happened here).
We begin with more reactions condemning the decision by the Criminal Court, after the numerous statements by international NGOs e.g. Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch and including the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, saying “the conviction and extremely harsh sentencing of Somyot sends the wrong signals on freedom of expression in Thailand. Also, the United States State Department issued a short statement during a press briefing last week, expressing “deep concern” and that “no one should be jailed for expressing peacefully their views”.
One of the first foreign reactions came from the European Delegation in Thailand, that sees press freedom and freedom of expression “undermined” by the verdict. It was just a matter of time until the statement was met with very extreme (but unsurprising) responses:
In response to the EU, an anonymous message was sent out on Facebook that went on to be shared by a large number of Thai royalists’ online social networks. In the highly politicised context of the ongoing Red-Yellow paradigm, politicking remains a key dynamic of course, in almost any social-political equation.
Nevertheless, it read: “Preserving our beloved Monarchy is the right of the Thai people – not the business of the EU… we have our own distinct culture, much of which has evolved around our beloved monarchy…This may be difficult for Europeans to understand: It is our long-held tradition to pay the utmost respect to our King, with a type of respect that is unique to Asian cultures.”
“Is our debate over freedom forever in conflict with Thai culture“, by Titipol Phakdeewanich, Prachatai, January 30, 2013
There was initially noticeable silence by Thai organizations such as the toothless National Human Rights Commission or similar domestic institutions. On Sunday, Prachatai reported on the reaction by the Thai Journalists’ Association (TJA):
Chavarong Limpatthamapanee, President of the TJA, has been forced to admit that they do ‘support and protect freedom of expression of the media’. But they then ring-fence this support and protection with as many caveats as they hope will protect them from the ultra-royalists. First they circumscribe the right to freedom of expression within Thai law. (…)
The TJA then decides that freedom of expression does not belong to everyone, but only ‘media’ and says there is a debate going on within the TJA over a definition of what does and does not constitute media.
Khun Chavarong offers a novel definition: “What we protect is media that reports objectively, but if any media tries to have a political agenda for certain political groups, then we cannot protect them.”
“To Be Media or Not To Be Media“, Prachatai, February 3, 2013
On the heels of the verdict, the Foreign Correspondent’s Club of Thailand (FCCT) hosted a panel discussion on lèse majesté with Somyot’s wife Sukanya Pruksakasemsuk, Prachatai webmaster Chiranuch Premchaiporn, prolific academic and lèse majesté expert Dr. David Streckfuss and Dr. Tul Sittisomwong, self-proclaimed leader of the ultra-royalist “multicolored-shirt group” and apparently the only one who is regularly willing to stand in a public debate to defend the draconian law (and also in English).
There’s been some controversy that the FCCT did not issue a statement on the Somyot verdict – understandable, since the club board has been targeted with a lèse majesté complaint in the past that was utterly politically motivated. However, the club itself defended their decision on the night of the panel discussion by saying that the FCCT is a club and not a journalist’s association. Furthermore, (and I am paraphrasing here) the club is there to foster a debate and argument about the issues in Thailand – preferably by Thais themselves and that evening’s debate was a good example (as they have done that in the past many, many times).
Whether or not this is enough is another question (for some it is not, but then again never will be) – but it also begs the question that if a statement by the FCCT was made, it would be doubtful how effective it would have been, considering how ferocious hardcore proponents of lèse majesté reject and attack any criticism, especially from abroad (see above). Furthermore, while there can be as much protest and scrutiny over the steady decline of freedom of speech in recent years, the real change still has to come from the Thais themselves.
The debate itself did not bring anything revolutionary to the discourse, but that was not to be expected. However, it was important that debate still exists and also the incomprehensible mess by Dr. Tul was yet again exposed the weak arguments the proponents of LM have. (See a recap of my live-tweeting of the panel discussion here)
And finally, before a football match between the universities of Thammasat and Chulalongkorn on Saturday, students (including Somyot’s son) from both sides were seen showing a large banner in the stands saying “FREE SOMYOT” and protesting around the stadium. The public protest happened in the opening ceremony – from which they were forbidden to participate – where giant paper-mache figures lampoon political figures, which was obviously this year prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra.
This is quite remarkable, since students (or young people in general) are not really publicly perceived as being politically interested and active (unlike in the past). And Thammasat University struggling with itself over their stance towards LM – leading to one of the most bizarre sights as journalism students (!) were protesting against the reform of the law.
While the chances for an actual legal change of the lèse majesté law are still unlikely thanks to an unwilling government – despite their red shirt voter base – all these stories show that the public discourse over lèse majesté is very much still alive and ongoing.
Saksith Saiyasombut is a Thai blogger and freelance foreign correspondent based in Bangkok, Thailand. He writes about Thai politics and current affairs since 2010 and is also reports for international news media such as Channel NewsAsia. You can follow him on Twitter @Saksith.